“SEXUAL HEALING: Joseph Kramer Sings the Body Electric”

“Most Western sex is necrophilia — one dead body having sex with another dead body,” Joseph Kramer told the UC Berkeley crowd. In contrast to the Chinese concept of sex as energy — ching-chi, a life force that through continual charging can take you to high erotic states and keep you there for hours at a time — he said, most Western men’s erotic experience is “balloon sex: you tense your legs, squeeze your chest, and blow up the middle ’til it pops.”

Then someone in the audience called out, “This is a great lecture. When’s the lab period?”

A sex lab period! He’d never thought about it. But Kramer, a professional masseur who’d divided his adult years between training with the Jesuits and investigating “high erotic states” among Manhattan’s sex piers at the height of the post-Stonewall gay subculture, was up for it. He quickly invited any interested men to come to his house the following night for a session that would involve nude oil massage. Twelve showed up. “I was really nervous. What to do?” Kramer recalls. “Then I thought, ‘Oh, Joe, you had five hours of sex a day for four years in New York City — what do you mean, what are you going to do?'”

“We had just three hours,” Kramer continues. “It was tribal. We had a fire going. Everything was structured — breathing, genital touching. Sometimes six people stood in a circle and the other six knelt before them touching their heart and genitals, and then the men in the middle would move to the next man. Nobody came the whole evening. But at the end four of the men said this was the highest erotic experience of their lives.

“This, surprisingly, did not make me feel good,” he adds. “It made me feel sad because I started to realize how paltry sex was in most people’s lives. All that happened was they got out of their rut, and it was, like, ‘Wow!’ I started to understand how easy it is just to set up environments that can pull people out of wherever they are and let them play in another realm. I said, ‘This is what I want to do.'”

Inspired by that first sex lab period, Kramer created the Body Electric School for massage in 1984, and began his life as a sexual healer. 

What is “sexual healing,” anyway, besides being the name of Marvin Gaye’s last great record? Partly it has to do with healing the wounds to the spirit and the flesh caused by sexual abuse, addiction, and AIDS. But it also has a lot to do with acknowledging that the fun and the pleasure, the vitality and the divine mystery of sex have nourishing properties in and of themselves — a message that can easily get overwhelmed in a culture where “sex appeal” is routinely exploited to sell products but sexuality (read: actual fucking) is usually discussed only in the context of abuse, addiction, or AIDS transmission. The sex negativity of the culture creates its own damage and alienation. For some people, their sexuality — their juiciness, their comfort with their bodies, their talent for intimacy — is a gift they’re not asked to share often enough; when they act on it, they run the risk of being viewed as pathologically compulsive, promiscuous, or somehow perverted. How often do we encounter public discourse that treats sex as something other than a sin or a joke? 

Kramer’s on a mission to change all that, with, among other things, his two-day, all-nude, hands-on workshop called Celebrating the Body Erotic for (as Kramer puts it) “pioneering gay, bisexual and non-gay men.” (Kramer hopes eventually to do workshops with both men and women, possibly with his friend Annie Sprinkle — “the only woman I’ve had sex with in 15 years.”) “You will relearn sex as sacred, playful, non-addictive, non-compulsive, and non-stop,” he promises participants. In 1988, Kramer taught the course himself 15 times, mostly in Los Angeles and Oakland. Last year he and a faculty of five gave almost 40 workshops in 17 cities across the country and abroad (including Amsterdam and Berlin).

I’ve noticed that many people recoil from the merest description of Kramer’s workshop. It brings up all kinds of body shame, religious guilt, intimidation. “I don’t like even my doctor looking at me naked,” wrote a young reporter who interviewed Kramer last year for Au Courant, Philadelphia’s gay weekly. “I couldn’t imagine getting naked in a well-lit room in front of a group of equally naked men…It wouldn’t be worth the stress.” Others snigger and dismiss the workshop as some kind of two-day circle jerk.

Personally, I was hoping it would be a two-day circle jerk. I somehow managed to get through eight years in the Boy Scouts without ever encountering that boyhood ritual. And when I showed up for Celebrating the Body Erotic, I couldn’t wait to get naked. After all, I’ve spent more than a decade working out at the gym. But then I’m a card-carrying member of not only the YMCA but also the New York Jacks, the genial gentlemen’s club where erotic exhibitionists and J/O enthusiasts have been meeting for 12 years.

To my surprise, Kramer’s workshop turned out to be less of an erotic experience than a spiritual awakening. (For the purposes of this discussion, let’s separate spirituality from organized religion.) By introducing tantric, Taoist, and Native American ritual practices — including conscious breathing, shamanic drumming, continuous eye contact, simultaneous heart-and-genital connection, and building ecstatic sexual energy without ejaculation — Kramer places within a spiritual tradition the discussion of exchanging body fluids usually confined to safer-sex manuals. 

Not that he would characterize his work as AIDS-prevention education per se. That makes it sound too much like those bland, sexually squeamish but eminently fundable seminars in “negotiating social skills” that organizations like GMHC offer and Kramer dismisses as “scurvy for the soul.” Nonetheless, if AIDS brought a shift in consciousness about sex, pleasure, life, death, and the spirit within all these things, Kramer’s workshop permanently altered the way I have sex — motivated not by fear of AIDS but by desire for change. It made me realize that not just my aging body but my soul wants more from sex than just getting it up and getting it off as quickly as possible.

On the other hand, Kramer doesn’t let his unabashed spiritual approach to eroticism settle into cant or New Age mumbo-jumbo. At the end of the first day of the workshop, he introduced an exercise that he said was inspired by listening to one of Marianne Williamson’s lectures on A Course in Miracles while driving. “I wasn’t paying too much attention until suddenly she said, ‘God is but love.’ Only this is the way my mind works: I heard her say ‘God is Butt Love.’ And I thought, ‘Yes!'” And he proceeded to give instructions for the most popular ritual of the day: two men covered with oil stand with their backs to a third man and massage him all over with their rear ends. God’s Butt Love, We Deliver.

Much of Kramer’s work emphasizes massage as a way of restoring a healthy attitude toward sex and intimacy among gay men threatened by or afflicted with HIV disease. It’s no accident that he named his school after Walt Whitman. A major part of Whitman’s legacy comes from the years he spent during the Civil War nursing the wounded and dying — an all-too-common experience in San Francisco over the last decade. Kramer formed the first AIDS hospice massage team in the United States, and both his teaching and his private practice revolved around touching people with life-threatening illness. “From very early in the epidemic, the major thing I saw was men terrorized,” he says. “Not just in fear, not just in depression — those were states that all kinds of human beings had. I never saw so many people in terror in all my life. Terror just shuts down everything. Psychotherapy takes a long time to deal with terror. But breath work and massage and touching and caressing is like spring thawing out the ice.”

Besides fear of AIDS, though, Kramer’s classes also focus on healing the unsatisfactory socialization of American gay men in general. While a few major cities have gay community centers that offer a wide range of social activities, many gay men still meet friends and partners in bars and bathhouses, environments that require great physical attractiveness, superior social skills, and/or extraordinary tolerance for alcohol and rejection to achieve sexual success or self-esteem. For nude gay men to interact in broad daylight, making eye contact and concentrating on the connection between their hearts and their genitals, is practically revolutionary.

Whatever you might imagine a sexual revolutionary would look like, Joe Kramer is not it. Tall, bespectacled, big-bellied and pink-cheeked, with reddish brown hair and mustache trimmed in a very proper Chamber of Commerce style, he looks like nothing more than an elementary school principal. Which, considering his background, isn’t that far from the truth. 

Born and raised in St. Louis, Kramer grew up in a devoutly Catholic family. His parents went to Mass every day — “probably still do,” he says — and Joseph himself, the oldest of six children, went to Catholic schools from first grade through university. Still, he was a sexual radical from early on. “I loved to masturbate,” Kramer says in an interview during one of his trips to New York. “I think the Catholic church helped me there, because it was a mortal sin to masturbate. I didn’t want to go to confession and tell the priest I masturbated six times yesterday or 25 times last week. I figured after coming I would just keep going, so it would only be one mortal sin. That’s how I learned multiple orgasms. 

“The other thing that repressiveness of Catholicism did was it brought God and sex together in my mind. God cared every time I had sex. It made sex not just some paltry thing, but God of heaven and earth was concerned about me touching my little penis from the time I was five on. Later, once I got rid of the guilt, I realized that the God space, the religious space in me was intimately tied up with sex.”

Kramer attended an all-boys Jesuit high school where he says he learned about male bonding. “There wasn’t a hint of homosexuality, but there was tremendous male intimacy. The Jesuits taught me to love myself and to love boys. Part of it was making the homophobia very low, so touching was okay. I really felt weird with my body and my orientation until I was 14. That homoerotic high school experience made me want to be a Jesuit. This was 1965, four years before Stonewall. The only other option I knew about homosexuals was there were homosexuals in prison. If I could just get into prison! But I was too good a boy to do anything bad. So I joined the Jesuits and trained toward being a priest for 11 years.”

For seven years he studied mathematics, philosophy, and theology while maintaining his celibacy. Then in 1972, while taking classes at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, he found himself sitting for hours a day in Sproul Plaza, the headquarters for the free speech movement in the ’60s, watching the students, the street singers, the preachers, the politicos, the Hare Krishnas and the Moonies. “In New York I think there’s toleration of diversity, but in Berkeley there was celebration of diversity. And I realized I was diverse, I was a gay man, and I was not celebrating my diversity.” He continued his theological studies for a few years until it became clear that he didn’t want to be a Jesuit. “Vatican II had just happened, and Pope John XXIII’s whole thing was ‘Open the windows of the Catholic church.’ There was a lot of emphasis on love and following your heart. So that’s what I did.”

His heart took him to New York in 1976, a time when gay liberation had met the sexual revolution head-on. “I moved from a monastic tradition in seminary life to a sex monastery,” Kramer recalls fondly. “Everybody was having sex everywhere. And when I went into sex, I wanted to drink life to the lees. Later, when I studied Reich, I realized I was doing Reichian therapy. It wasn’t compulsive, addictive acting out. I was vibrating out all the dead spots in myself. And everybody else was, too. This is where I learned tantra. Because it wasn’t about coming, it was about being in the erotic vibration and staying there.” 

Of course, tantra don’t pay the rent. Kramer took his most marketable skills — his Jesuit training — and got a job teaching at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an elite Catholic girls’ school on the Upper East Side. “By day I was teaching girls Roman Catholic theology, and by night I’d be in the basement of the Anvil or the Mineshaft. Actually, for me it was Man’s Country and the piers and 12 West.” 
Although he joined the board of directors of Dignity (an organization of gay Catholics) and gave talks in support of the New York City gay rights bill, the school didn’t know about his homosexuality — until he took his lover to a party and word got back to Cardinal Cooke, who conveyed his displeasure to the school’s headmistress. “They fired me. I wanted to fight it. There was no gay rights bill. Even when the gay rights bill was passed, Catholic schools were exempt.” Kramer went back to Berkeley to complete his degree, changing the focus to sex and spirituality. 

Besides studying acupressure and conscious breathing (also known as rebirthing, or holotropic breathing) to raise energy in the body, Kramer’s scholarly interest brought him to the teaching of Wilhelm Reich. One of Freud’s star pupils, Reich became a true revolutionary through his insistence, in works like The Function of the Orgasm (published in 1926!), that “those who are psychically ill need but one thing — complete and repeated genital gratification.” Even more threatening than his championing of sex as therapy was Reich’s political perspective: that authoritarian societies intentionally suppress the natural sexuality of children to paralyze rebellion and to inhibit critical thinking. The American government considered him a dangerous quack and arrested him for shipping an “orgone box” across state lines. Reich claimed the device (really no more than a lined wooden box big enough to sit in) could, among other things, cure cancer by containing and concentrating healing energy. His books were pulled from libraries and burned, and Reich was sentenced to two years in jail, where he died in 1957. 

Not overlooking the political parable in Reich’s story, Kramer saw that Reich was one of the first Westerners to share the Eastern view of health as energy. Steeped in these teachings, Kramer began to explore a massage practice, then a school, that would specifically connect conscious breathing with eroticism. 

“Celebrating the Body Erotic” packages the various talents Kramer has accumulated over the years: spiritual counselor, ritual priest, educator, gay historian, Fire Island disco bunny, marathon masturbator. Probably the most important skill that comes into play is his ability to handle terror. Coaxing 20 or 30 or 40 strangers out of their clothes and into giving up established patterns of sexual behavior — not to mention paying $250 for the privilege — requires a certain amount of finesse. 

I’ve been through the workshop several times (both as a paying customer and as a paid assistant, supporting Kramer as temple dancer and sacred DJ), and I know that the class attracts many veterans of the New York Jacks, the Radical Faeries, S&M clubs, and other explorations into what one Kramer graduate calls “the post-monogamy lack-of-scarcity approach to group sex.” But on the whole each workshop winds up with such a wild mix of characters that it looks like one of those World War II submarine movies.

The first time I take it, the class includes a physician’s assistant who works as an HIV counselor for drug addicts at Harlem Hospital and a man with AIDS who’s just been through a scary bout of toxoplasmosis; a Canadian conceptual artist and an Off Broadway stage manager; a half-Filipino, half-Mexican restaurateur and a daily newspaper journalist (my lover of 13 years). No matter how young, how old, or how brazen, though, when we form a circle that first morning — still in our street clothes — we all feel those junior- high-dance emotions: shyness, anticipation, sweaty palms. We’ve all come in off 14th Street through the grim lobby, climbed the stairs to this funky second-floor dance studio, and shed our coats and shoes. Now we stand uneasily looking around the room, rehearsing our mantras of body imperfection (I’m too fat, I’m too sweaty, my dick isn’t big enough) and counting the cuties and the trolls (I hope I get to be with him, I don’t want him anywhere near me). 

This is where Kramer starts to work his magic. He immediately gets people breathing together, for relaxation and bonding. He casts a spell with language, clearly stating intentions, naming fears, and drawing guidelines: don’t worry if you have an erection or not, the goal for the class is to build erotic energy without ejaculation, buttplay is off-limits for hygienic reasons. Working with facing concentric circles, changing partners frequently and randomly, he gets participants to breathe, stretch, warm up, make eye contact, place hands on hearts, learn each other’s names, and practice saying out loud “That feels good” and “Please stop.” 

Looking in other people’s eyes, windows of the soul — does anyone ever get to do that to their heart’s content? I was taught it was rude to look at people directly. Reich always began his therapy working on people’s eyes and wouldn’t go any further until he could get them to release the blocks held there. After a morning of swimming in one pair of eyeballs after another, trust has been established, and the rest of the rituals — the undressing, the oiling, the touching, Butt Love — are a breeze.

The climax of the workshop comes on the second day with Taoist erotic massage instruction, where participants take turns massaging and then being massaged by seven different men, one at a time. This ritual gives concrete practice in extending orgasmic sexual pleasure (using 20 or so strokes other than the basic up-and-down-the-shaft- til-he-squirts). For an alternative to ejaculation that would satisfy the Western urge for climax, he borrows from contemporary Taoist master Mantak Chia an exercise called The Big Draw. After an extended period of breathing and continuous cock massage, you take a deep breath, clench all your muscles from head to toe, hold the breath as long as possible, and then release it. The combined flooding of breath and erotic energies can trigger a full-body orgasm with profound effects. Some people hallucinate, weep, or have physical contractions that look for all the world like grand mal seizures. Some just feel a pleasant tingling in their hands.

The vigorous breathwork frequently brings up a deluge of emotions. For some this means mean total joy. For me, it was quite the opposite. The Big Draw produced no big physical effects but only made me realize how in-my-head I’d been for the whole thing: remembering the sequence of strokes, listening to the instructions, judging each masseur on his technique, my critical nature compounding my good-Catholic-boy follow-the-rules upbringing, thinking, “No, you’re doing it wrong, hands off the body when you breathe on me, slower circles, not that leg the other one,” etc. Then I felt sad and depressed and angry because I’d screwed myself out of the experience. As my final masseur wrapped my sheet around me and some seraphic music began to play, I felt like I was experiencing my own death and began to cry, grieving over my lack of generosity to myself. That inevitably connected with a seemingly bottomless pool of grief over friends who’ve died of AIDS, and I found myself sobbing. I discovered, quite unexpectedly, that by trying to cultivate only positive emotions I had created a logjam of grief that blocked me from feeling almost anything, including sexual arousal. And once I let it out, suddenly the spectrum of emotions spread out like a peacock’s tail, and I felt cleansed, exorcised, light enough to levitate.

The Taoist erotic massage ritual also serves another, more down-to-earth purpose that goes to the heart of Kramer’s work on erotic spirituality. It breaks down the tyranny of types (men, especially the gay tribe, are just as susceptible as women to The Beauty Myth) by allowing you to look, as if in a mirror, at the range of answers to the question, What is a man?

During the ritual, the varieties of manhood are laid out before you like specimens on the table. Each one is different, and you learn each particularity: the hair pattern, the size and shape of the balls, the belly button, which dicks are spotted or red or thick or stiffen fast or not at all. And you observe how they work, how they receive sensation in the form of pleasure, pain, or pressure (sometimes hard to distinguish). This one loves to have fingernails scrape his nipples; for others, nipples are a waste of time. One man asks to have his balls fondled, rubbed, tugged away from his body; another prefers you never touch them at all. Brisk? Slow? Concentrate on the “magic wand” and all else follows? Open the chest and emotion flows? You see each man’s history in his body — the layers of fat, the hours at the gym, the surgical scars, the intentional piercings and curious, dainty tattooes. What makes them laugh, moan, shout with pleasure, sob like a baby. 

By the end of the day, you look around the closing circle and see not cuties and trolls — and certainly not necrophiliacs. This landscape of bodies can’t help reflecting your own divine possibilities, calling to mind Whitman’s refrain: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Note: In October of 1992, Joseph Kramer sold the Body Electric School to his longtime associate Collin Brown. Body Electric faculty members continue to teach Celebrating the Body Erotic in cities around the country. 

Village Voice, 1992